Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.15 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). It is obvious from her contribution that she will make many more assured and expert speeches on issues in education, particularly special education in which she clearly has a great deal of experience. I also thank her for her kind tribute to our old colleague Keith Darvill who, unfortunately for us, is not back in the House. However, the campaign in Upminster was undoubtedly conducted in a generous spirit, and Keith made his mark even if he could not win the seat a second time—who knows, we may well see him here in the not too distant future. It is plain that the hon. Lady is committed to Upminster; she lives in the community and is committed to it, especially to its special education and the children involved. Her concerns are shared by Members on both sides of the House.

As there is only an hour and a half to debate the draft code of practice, it is all too easy to focus on the areas about which we are concerned. I preface my concerns by pointing out that the code of practice has a number of pluses, including more concentration and focus on working with parents when preparing statements of special educational needs and preparing to provide help and support for children with special educational needs. The code also puts an emphasis on encouraging pupil participation—trying to get pupils more involved in the development of special educational programmes and whatever is felt to be necessary to help them in diagnosing and meeting their needs.

The code also includes welcome guidance on early years settings, which are incredibly important; in fact, they are vital. The earlier that special needs are identified, the more likely it is that the education of children with special educational needs will have a successful outcome and that that will be achieved effectively, not only for the child but for the school and the local education authority. By meeting needs with appropriate expenditure at an early stage, it is possible to avoid what can often be heavy expenditure later.

I shall not dwell on all my concerns, some of which have already been raised today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will provide further reassurance that the special educational needs guidance to be issued by his Department will meet all our concerns about issues surrounding the word "quantification". I do not really like the word because, as has been said, the quality of provision is also important. Nevertheless we should not duck the question of specific, detailed descriptions of the provision that children need.

The draft code focuses a great deal on children's needs and the ability to identify them properly. It is therefore disappointing that it does not make stronger reference to identifying the specific provision required to meet those needs. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me on special needs guidance.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman made a valuable and important contribution to the Committee stage of the

10 Jul 2001 : Column 762

Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Does he accept that referring to quantification "as necessary" is weak? "As necessary" is a euphemism, which usually means "when you fancy" or "as you like".

Mr. Griffiths: I do not totally agree with that. Words such as "reasonable" have been used by Governments of all shades of political opinion throughout the years. If we apply a tight definition to "necessary" in the context of all that is said about the need to identify a child's specific educational requirements, we could argue that the word means that those requirements should be properly reflected. I agree that we could have avoided a semantic argument if more had been said about the need for detailed provision. I place great faith in my hon. Friend the Minister in respect of the Department's guidance.

I shall speak about only one other matter because I agree with much that has been said on both sides of the House. I raised mobility and independence training during the Report stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, as the Royal National Institute for the Blind brief conveniently points out to all hon. Members who have been able to read it. That organisation expresses anxiety because its report "Shaping the Future" shows that few children who need mobility and independence training get it.

My hon. Friend the Minister responded by saying that the Government supported a multi-agency approach to the problem. I hope that he will reassure me that the SEN guidance that will be issued to schools and local authorities provides some clarity about the requirements for giving children a fair chance in school and in life so that they can live full lives and, when possible, make a positive contribution to society. I hope that he will provide positive information on the guidance's contents in respect of the specific provision that children need.

10.23 pm

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on an impressive maiden speech, which was delivered with impeccable clarity. I enjoyed her tribute to her predecessor, and I found the image of two candidates spending many months on the campaign trail, and attending the same governing body meeting, charming. I am sure that those meetings were of the usual high quality.

I have never taken the District line all the way to Upminster, but many years ago, before the M25 was built, I drove from Kent to East Anglia, and had to wend my way through the Ockendons after forcing my way through the Dartford tunnel. I therefore have some memories of the hon. Lady's constituency.

I want to return briefly to what has become known as quantification. I am grateful for the further explanation provided by my hon. Friend the Minister, and I know that my constituents will welcome the examples that he has given, which will partly reassure them, but I should like to explain why they will still view the phrase "as necessary" with some concern. Their unease derives from the battles that I mentioned earlier in an intervention. Many parents have battled with LEAs over many years to try to get the special needs provision that they feel their children deserve and need. They feel that LEAs will use whatever opportunities they can to try to make as little

10 Jul 2001 : Column 763

provision as possible. That background suspicion of LEAs is what makes them concerned about the phrase "as necessary".

Will my hon. Friend complete the process of reassurance and tell us that he does not expect the number of cases in which quantification is necessary to be significantly smaller under the new code than under the existing code? Will he send out a signal by giving that assurance, or by telling us that quantification will normally be necessary? If the guidance sent out to schools reflects that message, I am sure that the parents in my constituency who take a close interest in this matter will be reassured and feel grateful to the Government for polishing up a code of practice that is otherwise very good.

10.26 pm

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): First I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for being present for this rather important debate. I thought that you might not be in the Chair after the many debates that have taken place today, but I am sure that you decided to pay attention because this one is so important.

The code of practice contains several good ideas, but unfortunately, other aspects suffer in comparison with the current code. I have three areas of concern. The current code advises local education authorities that

However, the code laid before Parliament on 20 June advises LEAs in the following terms:

It also states:

In other words, the concept of the norm is now ambiguous. There is no guidance on the criteria that are to be used when deciding quantification of provision. That is not an improvement; it is worse.

The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, from which most of my information comes, has obtained counsel's opinion on the wording of the new code. In short, the opinion is that the guidance on quantification in the code is unlawful. The panel believes that Parliament should withhold approval of the code unless paragraph 8:37 is redrafted. The view of David Wolfe, a barrister from Matrix chambers, is that broadly speaking, the code is unlawful and will be read as reducing the requirements for quantification of provision, thus reducing protection for children. He believes that it will encourage vague statements and achieve exactly what the Department for Education and Skills says that it is not trying to achieve.

I also want to deal with two more matters. There are questions concerning the removal of guidance on the duty to identify children with special educational needs. The Education Act 1996 gives LEAs the duty to identify children with such needs and the existing code of practice advises LEAs that in order to fulfil that duty, they should gather information from maintained schools about children living in their area who have special educational needs at stage 3.

The consultation draft of the new code, which was issued in July, brought the guidance into line with the new proposal on Action/Action Plus. In other words,

10 Jul 2001 : Column 764

it required local education authorities to collect information on children at Action Plus. It strengthened the guidance by advising LEAs to be aware of the need to identify children with special educational needs among those who were excluded from school and/or being educated at home.

The final version of the guidance excludes most of those provisions, and they should be brought back. They should be part of the guidance.

There is also a terrible omission in the code of practice—guidance when an assessment of a child with medical needs is necessary. I know that you have referred to that. I liked your maiden speech and I congratulate you on it.

The Education Act 1996 suggested that children with medical needs that do not give rise to learning difficulties, but which prevent or hinder them from making use of education facilities of the sort generally provided, are entitled to be considered for statutory assessment. That is broadly speaking what you said. I am most grateful that you mentioned in your maiden speech—

Next Section

IndexHome Page